The following passage from Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski tells the story of cognac.
Not the history of cognac but the story.
The story of how "four things: wine, sun, oak, and time" create cognac.
Kapuscinski's terse prose is poetry in the making:
- "The sun settles into the rings of the oak as amber settles at the bottom of the sea.";
- "The best cognac is given by solitary oaks, which grow in quiet places, on dry ground. Such oaks have basked in the sun. There is as much sun in them as there is honey in a honeycomb."; and
- "The oak is a lazy tree, and with cognac the oak must work. A cooper should have the touch of a violin maker."
Every now and again, I dip into Imperium to remind me that using simple language does not mean impoverishing content.
It means enriching it.
Kapuscinski knows that the short sentence is the one we listen to.
It's the one that commands our attention above all others.
But Kapuscinski doesn't employ short sentences to preach.
His genius lies in employing them to tell simple yet vivid stories.
And his measured use of metaphors, similes, and analogies seldom disappoints.
"To make cognac you need four things: wine, sun, oak, and time. And in addition to these, as in every art, you must have taste. The rest is as follows.
In the fall, after the vintage, a grape alcohol is made. This alcohol is poured into barrels. the barrels must be of oak. The entire secret of cognac is hidden in the rings of the oak tree. The oak grows and gathers sun into itself. The sun settles into the rings of the oak as amber settles at the bottom of the sea. It is a long process, lasting decades. A barrel made from a young oak would not produce good cognac. The oak grows; its trunk begins to turn silver. the oak swells; its wood gathers strength, color, and fragrance. Not every oak will give good cognac. The best cognac is given by solitary oaks, which grow in quiet places, on dry ground. Such oaks have basked in the sun. There is as much sun in them as there is honey in a honeycomb. Wet ground is acidic, and then the oak will be too bitter. One senses that immediately in a cognac. A tree that was wounded when it was young will also not give a good cognac. In a wounded trunk the juices do not circulate properly, and the wood no longer has that taste.
Then the coopers make the barrels. Such a cooper has to know what he is doing. If he cuts the wood badly, it will not yield its aroma. It will yield color, but the aroma it will withhold. The oak is a lazy tree, and with cognac the oak must work. A cooper should have the touch of a violin maker. A good barrel can last one hundred years. And there are barrels that are two hundred years old and more. Not every barrel is a success. There are barrels without taste, and then others that give cognac like gold. After several years one knows which barrels are which."
from Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski (translated by Klara Glowczewska)